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.comment: We're Getting There! - page 2

Discombobulation

  • August 15, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell

Due to a work assignment, I had cause in the last few days to install and take a look at Red Hat 7.1. I have by no means wrung it out, though I plan to in the coming weeks and if I find anything really remarkable I'll pass them along. And I'll confess to a little bit of bias -- in some ways it has very much seemed as if Red Hat has played the biggest goldfish in the bowl, grabbing Linux and swimming into the little castle to devour it without sharing, which bothers me. But that's not the point for now.

My duties required that I install the whole thing, not some predefined set of packages, accepting the defaults. The machine is an FIC VA-503A motherboard with a K6-2-550 chip and 256 megs of memory. The vid card is an OEM ATI Rage II with 32 megs. The drive is a 10-gig vanilla IDE. The motherboard has the VIA Audio Codec, which might more accurately be named That Damned VIA Audio Codec. Or perhaps The Chip of Silence. I've never gotten it to work with any distribution. I'm told it can be made to work (and that it can be made to click and squeal, which is not to me an improvement on silence), but the weekend when the most important thing in the world is sorting it out has not yet arrived. The network card is a cheapo Realtek 8139.

I've installed several other modern distributions on this machine -- the Lab Rat -- in recent months, and the Red Hat experience allows me to arrive at a conclusion: Linux installation is all grown up. What used to be a hellish ordeal no longer is.

My assignment came with Red Hat 7.1 CDs but no printed documentation. None. Yeah, the docs are on the CDs, but my ad hoc rules for operating system installation involve a blank machine and no recourse to another machine to read the onboard docs. (And when you buy the thing, it comes with docs. In this case, my rules might have been a little too strict. Then again, I've installed Linux before.)

I booted from the CD and was given a long set of choices which timed out a little too quickly; fortunately, the default graphical install was what I was after, because I wanted to see the easiest installation. Soon I was greeted by something called "Anaconda," which is too cute by half -- Caldera, which pioneered the easy graphical install, called theirs "Lizard." But the thing is good. The help text, draped down the left of the screen, was useful. There was little that anyone of average intelligence wouldn't understand. There were exceptions -- the network setup doesn't explain that if that network card is there just so you can use, say, a cable modem, you don't really need to fill in all those blanks. While I realize that Red Hat and most everybody else seek the enterprise, a nicely worded paragraph here would do much to ease the suffering of the would-be desktop Linux user. The same holds true for drive partitioning and formatting, and lilo configuration. In the former, the Disk Druid program that Red Hat has used since Hector was a pup will not let one assign the swap partition to hda1, which I do because I always have. I do it now for consistency, even though the issue of minimizing head movement might dictate putting it, say, between /usr and /home, not that the swap partition typically gets all that much use anyway. In the latter, there needs to be a lot more explanation. Red Hat offers the "linear" lilo parameter, but merely explains it by saying that it's used if the system uses linear addressing. There is no BIOS I've ever seen that employs the word "linear." (And on this machine, a successful install involved setting the BIOS to "normal," installing with "linear," then setting the BIOS to "LBA." Nothing else took. But that could be motherboard goofiness, so I'll not lay it at Red's Hat.)

But other than those two things, which may well be addressed in detail in the docs, the install was as easy as any I've encountered. My video card was misidentified, but the choice the install program made would have worked nicely. My monitor was recognized, and setting up X was almost irritatingly easy -- these newbies will never know how we have wept over configuring X. The USB trackball was recognized from the outset.This is part of a trend, I think -- and it belies distributions’ concentration on the enterprise, because an administrator doesn't need these niceties. Other distributions have been likewise making Linux installation as painless as possible.

In due course I was booted to the Gnome desktop. As a longtime KDE user, and an unashamed admirer of that desktop, I found nothing that was sufficiently unusual or different that I couldn't do work at once -- such as writing this column. I do wonder what the point is, because I think KDE is far ahead of Gnome development and otherwise the two are in all important ways virtual clones, but I find nothing particularly objectionable about Gnome, and even if I don't understand its adherents’ reasoning, I think it's fine it's there for them. What's more, it's not something that would horrify the new Linux user. And the competition is good for everybody, even though one would not guess this right off the bat when encountering the flame wars that erupt following all mentions of the two major desktops in the same paragraph (probably including this one).

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